Before I could find my way to the Tiber to cross through its waters to the Eternal City of Rome, in whose embrace I found the land of milk and honey, I paused for a bit at the Thames. I discovered the existence of liturgy and sacraments in the Anglican tradition, and I thought for a while that coming home to Canterbury might be an option a little bit less extreme in the eyes of my fundamentalist family than going off to consort with what I was taught as a child was the Whore of Babylon.
I grew very fond of the Anglican patrimony: the Prayer Book and the Anglican Missal, the Hymnal, chanting the psalms, cathedrals and boys’ choirs, the poetry of John Donne. I knew there to be Anglicans who considered themselves to be Catholics, even more so than the Romans. Could a life within Anglicanism be a way for me to live as both a Christian and a Catholic, combining the faith of my childhood with my growing love for the ancient and the traditional?
But the Anglican patrimony was not the only thing that attracted me. For the Baptist, there was just Scripture. For the Catholic, there was Scripture and Tradition. But the Anglicans like to include Reason in their trinity of sources of faith. With that typically English (and semi-Pelagian, I would come to realize later) enthusiasm for the capacity of man to know, I thought that, even if the use of Reason could sometimes cause divisions and discrepancies that were hard to square with a drive for unity, surely religion was meant to be in dialogue with Reason, not only my own but others’ as well. Anglicanism was the religion of personal freedom lived within the context of the historical Church, I came to think.
Then something happened which shattered my simplistic view of Anglicanism a potential spiritual home. I read the Articles of Religion, and my eyes rested on these words: Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture. I had come to believe that Jesus had meant what he said when he took bread and wine and said, “This is My Body; This is My Blood. Unless you eat My Flesh and drink My Blood you have no life in you.” The Real Presence of Christ was made manifest to me first of all through the reading of the Scriptures. The fact that my Bible-believing Church rejected that same Real Presence meant that I had to journey out of the Baptist faith of my childhood and find where this Real Presence could be enjoyed.
I knew that there were many Anglicans who believed in the Real Presence and, even if they were loath to use the T word, they believed in it with the same faith that the Fathers of the Council of Trent believed in it. But I also knew that there many Anglicans who had other opinions. Was this just another example of how Anglicanism’s use of Reason produced a variety of different interpretations that could live side by side together in harmony? Surely I could live as those quirky Anglo-Catholic priests did, who wore 39 buttons on their cassocks for each of those Articles they rejected, right?
But there Article 28 was, right in the Prayer Book. I shut the Prayer Book right then and there, and said to myself, “If I am going to be a Catholic, I am going to be a real Catholic. I am not going to do this half-way.” That very reaction is guaranteed to offend every Anglican who has ever struggled with converting to Rome, who has seen himself always as a Catholic even as he remained within the Church of England. But that is what I felt at the time.
Why such a reaction? How could I sacrifice Reason for the obscurantist obedience and dogma obsessed Roman Communion as simple as that? And why, when I actually professed the Creed in my local Catholic parish church and received for the first time the Body and Blood of Christ, did I not gaze longingly at the Anglican patrimony on which I had turned my back?
Article 28 raised for me a question: By whose authority is Article 28 something that I should even care about?
The Anglican patrimony has two aspects to it: there is a culture associated with it, in its art, history, music, and spirituality; and there is also a mindset, a way of thinking about being Church. In both its culture and mindset there is wide latitude, but sometimes to such a degree as to include mutually exclusive points of view as equally true.
The Anglo-Catholic, and especially Anglo-Papalist variant, tries to mix the culture and mindset of the Anglican patrimony with the culture and mindset of the Roman Church in whose shadow he lives, moves, breathes and has his being. He always has an eye on Rome, even as he is never quite sure what to do with what he sees there. The Anglo-Catholic finds himself in the ambiguous situation of being in communion with a Church of England which has severed ties with Rome and at the same time feeling that the fact of his non-communion of Rome is a lack which has to be remedied in some way.
But how is that lack to be remedied? Reason, that Anglican font of blessing, comes to supply the answer. Some reason that the Anglo-Catholic phenomenon is a way of paving the way for an eventual meeting of the minds between Rome and Canterbury. There is evidence that Anglo-Catholics have caused their Church to restore much of what was lost after Henry VIII: a greater appreciation of the sacraments and Eucharistic worship, the dignity of the office of bishop. Others reason that we having a more broad minded conception of what it means to be Catholic and Church will resolve our difficulties.
Yet what happens when I, from my vantage point within the Anglican Church, claim to be a part of the Catholic Church when the body which calls itself the Catholic Church says that I am not, and the body which calls itself the Anglican Communion says that I am not in communion with the body which calls itself the Catholic Church? What happens then when I say, because I believe it, every Sunday, I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church?
Article 28 not only raises the question: By whose authority is Article 28 something that I should even care about? but also, To whom am I bound as an authority and what are the limits of that authority, and my obedience to it? Anglicans have generally preferred to live with the sometimes uncomfortable vicissitudes brought about by our reasoning on the questions of faith rather than invoke authority. At its root, this preference is inherently Protestant. It doubts the capacity of any human authority to really be able to exercise divine authority, and it can point to innumerable instances where humans claiming to exercise such a divine authority have been frauds and caused great damage to the Church and humanity at large.
This is why many Anglo-Catholics have reveled in their own disobedience to their bishops over matters of faith and liturgy, and why attempts by their bishops to rein them in have been largely unsuccessful. But the same applies to disobedience by other types of Anglicans and attempts by Anglican hierarchy to address such disobedience. It has been commented before that many Anglo-Catholics are practical Congregationalists for all of their Catholic theology.
Each Anglo-Catholic believer, each priest, each parish, each institution incarnates in a very different way what it means to be Catholic and Church, where authority is and what deference should be paid to it. This radically individualistic, Atomistic notion of the Catholic Church is not the exclusive domain of Anglo-Catholics; it is a characteristic of our age. Such an Atomistic Catholic, as I will call him (and he exists in the Roman Church as well), holds on to as much of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, to as much of patrimony and culture of any kind, as he wishes.
But Atomistic Catholics, even as they preserve in themselves to a greater or lesser degree Scripture, Tradition, Reason, patrimony, culture, Catholic and Church, cannot live in communion with others. Atomistic Catholics are to be found not only in the Anglican Church, but in the Roman Church, in fact analogues exist in every world religion and political system.
The Catholic Church, however, whose Magisterium has never condemned Atomism as a heresy, nonetheless by her divine constitution can never admit Atomism as a hermeneutic, as a way of thinking or living. The Church’s founder, Jesus Christ, chose for reasons known to Him alone, weak and sinful human beings to exercise His own divine authority: to teach, govern and sanctify in His Name until He comes back in glory. The Atomist can assent to this truth as a logical corollary to the Incarnation, but he is always looking for a way to reject authority in the name of a higher authority. And that Atomism has taken various forms, from the Donatist heretics who rejected the validity of the sacraments celebrated by clergy whose lives were not in accord with the Gospel, to women ordained on boats in the Danube who reject the authority of an all-male hierarchy in favor of an authority which comes from themselves even as they claim it comes from God.
The women who have themselves ordained outside of the confines of the authority of the Catholic Church on grounds that a higher authority, namely themselves, allows it, have made a public stand that ordination is not subordination. Reason tells them subordination is a grave sin against their individual freedom, which they take as the most important virtue.
The Catholic Church responds, that ordination is all about subordination. It is about subordinating the good of individual human freedom, legitimate autonomy and personal authority to the common good of the communion of the Church, where freedom is not the most important virtue, but the pre-requisite for us to submit in obedience to the Truth of the Gospel revealed in every age in the same way through that same communion.
A hermeneutic of Atomism, then, rejects the notion that any authority can pronounce invalid anyone else’s ordination. If ordination comes from my free response to my own authority, then how can anyone outside of myself dare to question its validity? This is a sticking point with many Atomistic Catholics in and outside the Anglican Communion who are still puzzled over the continued acceptance by Rome of Leo XIII’s recognition of Anglican orders as absolutely null and utterly void. By extension, Atomists of every kind would see in the Catholic Church’s declaration nothing more than mean stupidity.
We see here the difference between how the hermeneutic of Atomism views reality and the way the Church exercises authority. The Catholic Church says that Holy Orders is a sacrament, and by that she means, a outward sign of inward grace, instituted by Christ, which produces the grace that it signifies. The 25th Article of Religion says that Holy Orders, along with four other rites the Catholic Church recognizes as sacraments, is not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles.
It is common to say that the Catholic Church denies the validity of Anglican orders, which some take as a rejection of Anglican ministers’ work and love for the Gospel and for Christ. In reality, the Catholic Church says that Orders is a sacrament. The Anglican Church says that Orders is not a sacrament the way that Catholics define sacrament. The Catholic Church says that Anglican Orders is not a sacrament the way that Catholics define sacrament. The Church’s authority in the reviled Apostolicae curae recognizes that the Catholic and Anglican churches say exactly the same thing about Anglican orders: they are not a sacrament they way the Catholic Church defines a sacrament.
Seen in that light, it becomes clear that the authority of the Catholic Church is not used as a weapon to maltreat Anglicans. Such an authority is used, however, to state the reality of what is: Anglicans and Catholics do not mean the same thing when they speak of the sacraments and Holy Orders. The Atomistic Catholic, however, having changed by his own authority the meaning of Orders, of sacrament, of a whole host of things, then attacks the Catholic Church for being at variance with his own authority. Wherever Atomism exists, it reduces, relativizes and individualizes authority, and rejects any other kind of authority outside of the self, legitimate or not.
The way forward for Anglo-Catholics, and all men and women of good will, who seek to preserve their patrimony and culture, to be faithful to Scripture, Tradition and Reason, is not to debate the relative merits of Apostolicae curae and the Thirty-Nine Articles. It is not to cling bravely hope against hope to a Communion which has always and will continue to marginalize them. It is not even to come into full communion with Rome while keeping an eye on the Church of England whose shadow they are trying not to escape, while reserving the right to keep some authority for their own vision.
The way forward for Anglo-Catholics is to convert away from anything resembling Atomism in their thoughts, words and deeds. It is to realize that their ordination, whether to Orders as ministers of Gospel and Sacrament or to baptism as disciples of the LORD Jesus, is subordination: subordinating the freedom they have to enjoy their patrimony, and culture in their own way to a Truth which is lived in the authority of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church which subsists in the See of Rome, not for any merit of her own, but as the greatest gift God has given man to escape being unrelated atoms so as to be built into the very Body of Christ.
Father Christopher Smith is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina and a student at the University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain, where he is pursuing a doctoral degree in dogmatic theology.